The banality of genius

17 12 2018

I have been experiencing a recent renewed interest in chess. While this is not by any means a major concern of my life at the moment, I have read one book on the subject, namely, Bobby Fischer Goes to War. The book is an extensive treatment of the World Championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky in the summer of 1972 in Iceland. Interest in the match led to a brief chess renaissance in the United States as well as cementing international fame for Fischer. Fischer would later go on to have an infamous decline resulting in his permanent exile from the United States and arguably a lapse into madness.

The angle I would like to address here is the inherent intelligence and dedication of Fischer himself. Fischer was born to a struggling single mother who settled in Brooklyn with her not-so-exceptional child. Fischer slowly began to rise through the ranks of the junior chess clubs, but at some point, he became wholly dedicated to the game. One could even say he was singularly dedicated to it. As he entered his teenage years, nothing else interested him, and he began to take on the big names in U.S. chess, beating everyone he encountered. Soon, as a young man, his eyes were set against the dominating juggernaut of the sport: the Soviet chess machine.

In the middle part of the 20th century, players from the Soviet Union dominated the game of chess, with a successive line of world champions spanning decades. By the 1950’s, the young Boris Spassky was emerging as the man to beat in Soviet chess. As a child of war and hunger in Petrograd, Spassky too struggled up the Soviet chess ranks, emerging as an eccentric chess genius in his own right. In the book, Spassky is shown having political opinions that would have resulted in prison for a man of lesser talent and influence. The match against Spassky was thus not portrayed as an ideological battle between Soviet collectivism and capitalist individualism, but something far more nuanced and complex (as reality usually tends to be).

The banality comes in on Fischer’s side. To the question of what drove Fischer to be the best, the authors of the book come up with a somewhat disappointing and uninspiring answer: money. Far from being the sort of cultured polymath that the Soviet chess machine sought to cultivate as evidence of national superiority, Fischer was only into chess for the material benefits the game gave him (with a large dose of ego as well). Indeed, the famous championship match in Iceland almost didn’t happen due to the financial demands of Fischer (who by that time had become an international superstar in the chess world). Fischer constantly clashed with the organizers over money, perks, and even the seating arrangement of the venue where the match was held. Fischer’s other interests appeared to be banal to non-existent: he liked to hobnob with big chested blondes and had no particular cultural graces to speak of. He could whip out a portable chessboard even at social events to study a particular opening or gambit, but as for any other topics of conversation, these were lacking.

Fischer of course won against Spassky in an epic chess battle, but when it came time for Fischer to defend his victory, material concerns and Fischer’s paranoia got in the way, and he forfeited his champion title. The decades that followed would see Fischer descend into eccentricity and pariah status. He played a re-match against Spassky in the early 1990’s amidst an international embargo against the former Yugoslavia, earning him the ire of the U.S. State Department. He also became a rabid anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist (in spite of having Jewish heritage himself). Perhaps this was making of for lost time in terms of interests other than chess. As with most older players, his chess game never recovered. He died a nearly stateless person, with most of his material gains being spent during his fugitive years.

It is now a cliche to ask if madness and genius are easily paired. With Fischer, I think this is an uninteresting question. What is most admirable in my view is how at his height he could clobber the best players in the world, often decisively, yet he was a phalanx of one, singularly devoted to chess and chess alone. There was absolutely no context to it, there was no greater connection to the world of learning and human progress. Both Spassky and Fischer played their famous match resisting the broader interests of dueling world powers. The real question is if genius itself sometimes has horse blinders on, and if we who are on the outside looking in need to add our own meaning to it, whether it be divine grace or madness. All the players saw perhaps were the board and the pieces.


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